I liked Jimmy McGriff but I was never a huge fan. A tad too much funk and filler for me on many albums whereas Groove Holmes, Brother Jack McDuff and Charles Earland were in it to win it on nearly everything they played. But when McGriff worked the organ's keys and pedals on just the right tune—usually covers of soul and r&b hits—he could get greasier than nearly than any other Hammond B-3 practitioner.
McGriff, who died on May 24, came up through gospel, and he played a meaty role in inspiring and advancing the soul-jazz genre of the early 1970s. As pop and rock continued to shred jazz's mainstream appeal in the 1960s and jazz became freer and duller, organists steeped in the blues and church traditions filled the lyrical void. By covering songbook standards and soul hits for listeners with jazz sensibilities, they achieved pop success on their own terms.
When you think about it, the crossover by organists to soul wasn't such a stretch. The talents of most artists like Marvin Gaye [pictured], Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield were forged in the choir. Organists like McGriff were simply restoring soul's gospel roots to r&b songs and adding funky tempos built largely on the boogaloo beat.
For me, the best of McGriff's catalog divides into two distinct categories—jazz standards and soul hit interpretations. The drawn-out funky stuff tends to grow old fast once the novelty of the song's riff wears off. But by recognizing that soul singles could be enhanced when given the organ treatment, McGriff created a new genre in the late 1960s and paved the way for Charles Earland [pictured], Leon Spencer and other organists who, in the 1970s, covered hits by artists like the Carpenters, Marvin Gaye, B.J. Thomas and the Spiral Staircase.
In tribute to Jimmy McGriff, here are my 10 favorite tracks—five smart jazz interpretations and five soul covers. All can be found as downloads at iTunes or Amazon unless otherwise noted:
1. Cute. Recorded in 1966, this swinger featured Ernie Royal, Richard Williams, Jimmy Nottingham, Joe Newman on trumpets; Tom McIntosh, Paul Faulise, Wayne Andre and Tony Studd on trombones; Jerome Richardson and Frank Wess on alto saxes; Billy Mitchell and Budd Johnson on tenor sax; Seldon Powell on baritone sax; McGriff on organ; Barry Galbraith on guitar; Richard Davis on bass; and Mel Lewis on drums. McGriff swings this Neal Hefti composition all the way through. It's on Jimmy McGriff's The Big Band: A Tribute to Basie.
2. The Way You Look Tonight. McGriff takes this standard at a rollicking pace, with Eric Gale and Everett Barksdale on guitars, Milt Hinton on bass and Grady Tate on drums. The tune originally was on a 1966 release called Cherry but now can be found on The Best of the Headfirst Years.
3. Yardbird Suite. McGriff gives Charlie Parker's tune a strong walking bass line on the pedal boards and a squealing keyboard workout. Joining McGriff were Ronald Arnold on tenor sax, George Freeman and John Thomas on guitars, and Marion Booker on drums. This tune came out on Fly Dude in 1972. It's now on 100% Pure Funk.
4. Because of You. In the 1980s, McGriff worked extensively with tenor saxophonist Hank Crawford. They recorded this Tony Bennett hit on Soul Survivors (1986), which also featured George Benson and Jim Pittsburgh on guitars, and Bernard Purdie and Mel Lewis on drums. You'll find it on The Best of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff, under Hank Crawford's name.
5. Soul Street. McGriff works over this Oliver Nelson blues like nobody's business. On this date, Bill Easley and Gordon Beadle are on tenor saxes, Ronnie Cuber is on baritone sax, Melvin Sparks and Rodney Jones are on guitar, Wilbur Bascomb is on bass, Bernard Purdie and Don Williams are on drums. The track is on McGriff Avenue (2001). Unfortunately you have to download the entire album to get it. Sample it and see what you think.
6. Let's Stay Together. McGriff gives this Al Green soul hit the organ plus horns and conga treatment, and he winds up matching Green, in my opinion. I only wish it ran for another five minutes. On this date were Billy Skinner (trumpet), Tricky Lofton (trombone), Harold Bennett (flute and saxes), Larry Frazier on guitar, Willie "Saint" Jenkins or Jesse Kilpatrick on drums, and James Peacock (cga,tamb). It was recorded in 1972 on Let's Stay Together, the tracks of which can be downloaded individually at Amazon.
7. What's Goin' On? McGriff was one of the first organists to cover Marvin Gaye's 1971 soul anthem less than a year after its release. It's on the Let's Stay Together album mentioned above and can be downloaded at Amazon.
8. Theme from Shaft. Yet another great track from Let's Stay Together. A jazz-funk interpretation of the Isaac Hayes movie theme.
9. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Recorded in 1982 and released originally on McGriff's The Groover, this 1966 song technically was a jazz hit first, recorded by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. But the tune quickly became a soul-pop classic. McGriff is joined here by Arnold Sterling on alto sax, Billy Butler on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Belton Evans on drums and Ray Mantilla on percussion. It can be downloaded from Blues Groove.
10. We're a Winner. McGriff's cover of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions' 1967 r&b hit was released on Honey (1968), which may be McGriff's best and most important album. Sadly, it's out of print and not available on CD or as a download, which is truly a shame. Also a shame is that the personnel was not listed on the album. To give you a sense of how great the album is, the soul cover tracks include Since You've Been Gone; Respect; Chain of Fools; We're a Winner; Up, Up and Away; and Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay.
JazzWax video clip: Go here and dig a clip of Jimmy playing and rapping about his technique for winning over a club audience on the Hammond. Go here for a McGriff tribute that was put up just a few days ago.